Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It is primarily used in petroleum refining, chemical processing, electronics manufacturing, metal refining and food processing.
Because hydrogen must be generated, it is not an energy source like the sun, wind, water or coal. Hydrogen is most widely produced from the steam reforming of methane, typically in and by the petroleum industry. This process uses hydrocarbons and produces emissions. Hydrogen can also be produced using non-emitting electricity sources such as hydro, wind, solar and nuclear power, typically through electrolysis where water is split by electricity into its component parts. Hydrogen is also produced in relatively large quantities as a by-product of industrial processes such as chorine production. This waste stream can be captured and used. Both electrolysis and waste capture of hydrogen produce no carbon dioxide, particulates or sulfur emissions.
Increasingly, hydrogen is being used to "carry" energy, similar to the way that electricity does. The use of hydrogen as an energy carrier has a number of benefits:
- It represents an alternative to fossil fuels and can be extracted from a wide variety of energy sources, including renewable energy or captured from industrial waste streams.
- It can be produced and used in ways that help improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- It represents an option to generate new economic opportunities and for many countries it can contribute to increased energy reliability and independence.
Hydrogen can be stored as a compressed gas or liquid or in a chemical compound. It is transported by pipeline or by road via cylinders, tube trailers and cryogenic tankers, with a small amount shipped by rail or barge.
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electrical energy without combustion. Its only by-products are water and heat.
Fuel cells supply electricity much like batteries, but require no electrical recharging. While batteries store and release electrical energy, fuel cells produce electricity continuously as long as an external fuel source is supplied.
Producing power from a fuel cell requires a system composed of several key components including the fuel cell "stack" (a series of electrical conducting cells stacked together) and the balance of plant (hydrogen storage, pumps, monitoring and control systems, power conditioning, cooling).
Fuel cell technologies compete with a wide range of mature products in markets served by existing manufacturers, customers and suppliers. Technologies such as diesel generators, lead acid batteries and the internal combustion engine have enjoyed decades of innovation and continue to provide value to customers.
Fuel cells produce electricity without combustion and unlike internal combustion engines, they generate no noise, vibration, air pollution or greenhouse gases. They also operate at higher efficiencies over a wide range of loads.
Fuel cells don't need to be replaced or undergo a lengthy recharging cycle when their fuel is spent. Additionally, since fuel cells store their fuel in external storage tanks, the maximum operating range of a fuel cell-powered device is limited only by the amount of fuel that can be carried.
Since fuel cells are scalable from watts to megawatts and can be installed on site, they can reduce the need for large power generation plants and associated infrastructure such as power lines.
Fuel cells can have quick load-following capabilities making them useful in applications which require on-demand power (e.g. backup, peaking power applications).
Fuel cells have substantially fewer moving parts than internal combustion engines. It is therefore anticipated that maintenance costs for fuel cells will be lower than those for internal combustion engines.
The concept of the hydrogen economy, in which hydrogen was to have replaced carbon-based fossil fuels, was first proposed in the 1970s. It foresaw a system in which the economy would rely on hydrogen as the energy carrier, eliminating the use of fossil fuels, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and ensuring energy independence and security. Emphasis was on the commercialization of fuel cell vehicles and the creation of fuelling infrastructure.
The concept of a hydrogen economy has since evolved. In Canada, the industry vision has moved beyond the long-term commercialization of fuel cell vehicles to focus on commercialization in near-term markets where fuel cell products can be deployed using current technology with simpler infrastructure requirements. As a result, novel hydrogen and fuel cell applications are developing rapidly in areas such as forklifts, back-up power, handheld consumer devices and hydrogen internal combustion engine technologies.
The Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association represents the majority of stakeholders in Canada's hydrogen and fuel cell sector. Its members cover most types of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, components, systems supply and integration, fuelling systems, fuel storage and engineering and financial services.